HCS_SOL_TILE_3_DAY_3-0829-e1456860905844Not too long ago, customers didn’t have much leverage when a product or service failed to live up to expectations. Sure, they could shop elsewhere, but that was a blunt tool that didn’t command attention from the business even if it quietly signaled dissatisfaction on a macro level.
How times have changed. Social media, smartphones, review sites, and the Millennial generation’s penchant for buying on the recommendation of friends has upended the customer service relationship between businesses and consumers. Unhappy customers can make their opinions known, and social media and review sites amplify their sentiments. Businesses that don’t prioritize customer service now lose to their competitors.
The numbers bear this out, too; roughly 89 percent of businesses now plan to compete primarily on the basis of customer experience, according to a recent Gartner study. That’s a sharp uptick from the 36 percent of businesses that competed on customer service in 2014, and even a big increase over the 58 percent that cited it as a key competitive area in 2015.

As always, innovation plays an important role in competitive advantage. Here are the top five trends in customer service innovation that businesses should focus on to compete on customer care.

1. Quicker and More Personalized Responses
The social media experimentation phase is over. If your business is not social media literate today, you’re failing miserably at the customer service game.
Quick and personalized customer service responses are here to stay, and customers now expect that their social media gripes and tweets to companies will garner a fast response. When customers reach out on social media, businesses better be listening.
What’s more, the responses must be personal; the days of “call us” replies on social media and generic, canned responses are no longer acceptable, especially to the influential Millennial generation. Your business must not only see a customer’s inquiry, it must genuinely address it in a customized and timely manner.

2. Visual Face-To-Face Virtual Interactions
Perhaps the most profound customer service innovation today is the emergence of virtual face-to-face interaction with customer support. This can be seen with Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX tablet, which offers a Mayday button where customers can connect with an agent in less than 10 seconds via one-way video. Other firms also are getting in on the act, offering in-app or web site-based video chat support.
The advantage of including video is both the face it brings to customer care and the opportunity for enhanced support. Agents can visually answer questions and demonstrate product features, and troubleshooting can be greatly enhanced; imagine assembling an IKEA table and having an agent visually show you how to put it together!
Including video chat is easier than ever, too; Google has pioneered the emerging WebRTC standard, which allows businesses to include robust video chat, calling, and screen-sharing in an app or web site with only a few lines of JavaScript and no need for plugins or downloaded software on the part of the consumer.
However, according to Tony Zhao CEO of Agora.io, a video chat SDK company, face-to-face video customer service won’t catch on if there are connection and reliability issues; he says,
“If a customer clicks to call you and needs assistance with one of your products, and the quality of the video is poor, for whatever the reason is, maybe they’re in a rural town or in another country, then they won’t get the help they need in order to use your product and that bad experience could be detrimental to any possible future purchases.”
3. Ramping Up Robust Self-Services
In tandem with an amplified voice, customers today also come prepared with greater product knowledge. Unlike even a few years ago, researching products and learning about key purchase considerations is an essential part in the buying process.
This greater product knowledge demands more personalized customer care, but it also means that customers want quick answers they can discover themselves without the need for interaction with customer support. Self-service options are now expected.
Self-serve customer care means more than a FAQ and a few key support documents online. Online knowledge bases need to be deep and legitimately answer most questions posed by customers; businesses can uncover these questions by mining their agent interactions with customers.
Giving your customer the ability to self-serve also means supporting a community of customers through well-supported online forums where customers can interact directly and share knowledge.

4. Connecting With Customers in Every Channel They’re On
Phone and social media are not the only ways that customers now expect to interact with businesses. Customer service in 2016 requires that businesses engage with customers through all the same channels that customers interact with friends and family.
Roughly half of all customers surveyed by HeyWire Business, a mobile messaging service, said text messaging was their preferred way to interact with customer care. Further, 53 percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 preferred electronic media over traditional phone calls for customer service support.
Working a multichannel approach means supporting text, popular chat services, social media, email, phone, popular discussion boards, and whatever new form of communication that develops in the future.
Making this happen effectively means that businesses also must retool their customer service departments with a greater emphasis on information sharing and a communications hub model so responses are consistent and informed across platforms.

5. Rewarding Customer Care Successes
There’s a huge difference between customer service agents phoning it in and those who genuinely care about making customers happy. This emotional buy-in from employees cannot come from a corporate dictate, but it can be encouraged through incentives and a proper focus on good customer service metrics.
Richard Shapiro, founder and president of The Center For Client Retention, stresses that rewarding employees for good customer service is one of the key ways that businesses win the customer service competition. Those that track and incentivize good customer care will more likely develop employees who are firmly behind the drive for exceptional customer service.
These incentives should be available across the company, not just in the customer care department. Incentives and rewards that prioritize cheerful, responsive customer interactions raise the customer care culture throughout an entire company and get the firm focused squarely on making customers happy.
The new competitive battlefield is customer service, and businesses can hardly afford their old approach to customer care that was far too often a cost center and an afterthought. Customers are in control now, and this means the bar has been raised for all businesses when it comes to support. Ignore these customer care trends at your peril.

– By JTRipton and Peter Scott